by Gabe Beita Kiser
By the summer of 2014, Cadillac had seemingly found the path that would lead it to the growth it so badly wanted. After years of lackluster rebadging jobs and an image as the automaker that builds stale products for old people, Cadillac moved to New York, adopted a youthful, upscale image, and got to work building vehicles that felt as dynamic as Germany's best.
And then the plan went bust. That's because somewhere, somehow, Cadillac missed the memo telling it to build more SUVs. It rushed the XT5 to market in 2017 so it could stop hemorrhaging customers, but with most of its competitors having, in ex Cadillac boss Johan de Nysschen's own words, more SUVs "than I can count on two hands," it was clear the company needed to build more of them. Many, many more.
The result of that pressure led GM's luxury brand to debut the entry-level XT4 and the three-row XT6, the latter of which Cadillac brought us out to the District of Columbia to drive.
Cadillac's efforts to depart from designs not even the AARP could love have led it to borrow the face of its very own Escala Concept for the XT6. Thin slit LED headlights and a large grille do a good job of ushering in Cadillac's new look, especially with the bold daytime running lights flanking the lower portion of the grille and front fascia. From there on back, however, the XT6 looks like just about every other upscale three-row crossover on the market. This, despite such features as a high beltline, distinguishable side window surround trim, wheel arches that are surrounded by a subtle bulge, thin arcing taillights, a chrome strip running across the tailgate, and chrome tailpipes embedded in the rear bumper.
When someone pointed out that the XT6 looks like a Kia Telluride from certain angles, the comparison is hard to unsee. The XT6's forgettable looks (cover up the front end with your hand and look at the rest of the body…see how plain it looks?) stem from the fact Cadillac used plenty of inoffensive lines to construct the SUV's silhouette, which is something many of its competitors don't do.
Cadillac's new "Y" strategy also means that the XT6 can be split into two separate cars, the Premium Luxury model and the Sport variant, each boasting a unique look and driving dynamics. Styling cues on Sport models include a black mesh grille with complementing mesh intake slats on the front fascia, a sleeker front end design, darkened side window surround trim, blacked-out roof racks, clear frosted taillights, a blacked-out rear bumper trim piece, and a different wheel design.
Meanwhile, the Premium Luxury XT6 gets chrome accents on its grille, a new front fascia with horizontal slats making up the chin intakes, chrome side window surround and roof racks, a less aggressive style of wheel, and a piece of chrome trim running across the lower part of the rear bumper.
Regardless of trim, the XT6 packs GM's proprietary 3.6-liter naturally-aspirated V6 that makes 310 horsepower and 271 lb-ft of torque. Power is first routed through a nine-speed automatic gearbox before being sent either to the front wheels or all four if all-wheel drive is optioned. Like many other vehicles in Cadillac's lineup, the powertrain is one area where the XT6 shines. Whether in AWD mode or with the engine sending power exclusively to the front, the engine and gearbox shift seamlessly and without discernible power interruption.
Even when climbing a hill, the XT6 feels like it's either in the right gear or one painless shift away from it. Without turbocharges impeding acceleration, the engine revs freely and pulls linearly, and the smoothness of the operation carries over to the operation of the stop/start system. But even with the engine shutting off at stoplights and the inclusion of GM's active fuel management system, which cuts power to some of the cylinders when the Caddy is coasting, the XT6 manages a fairly average 18/25/20 mpg city/highway/combined in FWD guise. Mileage drops by 1 mpg for city and highway ratings in the AWD model while its combined rating stays the same.
Like the exterior, the bulk of the interior's styling and technology highlights can be found at the front. Unlike the XT5 we drove a couple of years ago, the XT6 feels more upscale and better put-together inside, though there are still some places where fit, finish, and design falls short of the competition. Like the exterior, the interior features noticeable differences that help discern between Sport and Premium Luxury models.
Vehicles in the former guise get (real) carbon-fiber trim while Premium Luxury models see (also real) wood trim. No matter the package, every XT6 gets semi-aniline premium leather-appointed seating that's complemented by metal accents. Metal steering wheel buttons are a nice touch, though they don't do away with the cheap and clunky feeling derived by the plastic buttons right above them. The steering wheel does, however, do a good job of not blocking the digital gauge cluster behind it, which is especially useful when the XT6 is optioned with the available infrared night vision camera.
One area Cadillac has made big improvements is in the realm of driver interaction with the car's technology. Gone is the touch-sensitive volume-adjusting slider. In its place is a real volume knob, which sits just ahead of a new rotator knob that allows for less distracting interaction with the 8-inch HD touchscreen infotainment system loaded with Cadillac's newest user interface. Unfortunately, one XT5 annoyance that carries over to the XT6 is the Electronic Precision Shift mechanism, which is still frustrating to use.
Helping make up for it is the incredibly comfortable captain's chairs in the first and second row, a surprisingly spacious power-folding third row, and a panoramic sunroof. Another trend the XT6 adopts is that of integrating the speakers into the vehicle's list of design highlights. Doing so requires opting for the 14-speaker Bose audio system via the $1,000 navigation option, but adds attractive silver mesh grilles over each of the noticeable speakers.
The upside to the XT6's rather plain exterior proportions is that they make for a spacious interior. The first thing to note when getting in is that there's plenty of headroom and legroom for occupants across almost all three rows. With headroom ranging from 39.8 inches up front to a class-leading 37.2 inches in the third row, occupants will hardly feel like they're crammed in. Legroom is also aplenty, with the front and second rows getting 41.2 inches and 39.1 inches respectively. The third row makes do with 29.5 inches, which is still not bad, and ingress and egress are made easy thanks to a single latch that moves the second row out of the way.
With all three rows in place, there are only 12.6 cubic feet of cargo space under the rear hatch, but the power-folding third row can quickly bring that up to 43.1 cubic feet. Rearranging the cabin to optimize space by stowing the second row unleashes the Caddy's full 78.7 cubic feet of storage space if you can get away with seating two people instead of the XT6's maximum of seven (or optional six-seat layout).
Most vehicles that are packaged as sport or luxury models tend to drive similarly and feature only stylistic differences, but that's not something that holds true for the XT6. Cadillac actually designed each model with different hardware that makes each car drive differently from the other.
Our day-long trip began in the Sport model, which has its driving abilities enhanced by a shorter steering rack that's given more weight, an active damping suspension system that's set up to relay more information about how the road and chassis are interacting with one another, a unique throttle map with shift points programmed for exhilaration, upgraded powertrain cooling hardware, and a Sport Control AWD system with Active Yaw Control.
The results of all these upgrades are to make the XT6 mildly engaging. This is no AMG-fighter, but it feels good to drive, even in the corners. The steering, like the powertrain, feels perfectly weighted for the job of making curvy Virginia roads easy to navigate, though given how strict Virginia police can be, we didn't get a chance to truly push the XT6. Not like harsh treatment is what this SUV begs for, but the engine's power and responsiveness, as well as the transmission's smoothness, do make driving the XT6 more fun than expected.
Body roll is present, but it's nowhere near as bad as it is on the Premium Luxury model. Relying on a steering rack with a more conventional ratio and boasting far lighter steering weight, a suspension system designed to insulate the riders from the road, and throttle mapping that encourages linear acceleration, the XT6 Premium Luxury transforms itself into an SUV that's too soft to have any fun with. In fact, the lack of enthusiasm makes the Premium Luxury model feel almost soulless. The powertrain is still well-tuned and maintains its responsiveness, but steering is so light and indirect that it feels like the pillowy-soft Cadillacs of yesteryear.
The XT6 is still a brand-new model, so it remains to be seen whether it's reliable or not. So far no recalls have been issued for the XT6. Neither the Sport or Premium Luxury models we drove exhibited any issues during our short time behind the wheel. We did, however, catch our least favorite Cadillac habit in the XT6: squeaks that can be heard throughout the cabin when going over bumps, potholes, or road undulations.
Cadillac has done wonders to make the XT6 an easy car to order. The main decision is between the Premium Luxury or the Sport trim, the former of which costs $54,315 in FWD spec and $56,315 when equipped with AWD, both prices including the $995 destination charge. Stepping up to the Sport model costs $58,715 including destination, and there's no choosing the drive wheels here since it comes standard with AWD. After choosing between each of the XT6's nine color options, only one of which is free, buyers can then pick between five color options in the Premium Luxury model and four in the Sport.
From there, things get a little more complex. The $3,700 Platinum package, available across both trims, offers comfortable seating across all rows, a microfiber suede headliner, and enhanced trim options that spruce up the Caddy's interior. Getting all the driver assistants like adaptive cruise control, automatic belt-tightening, enhanced automatic braking, and reverse automatic braking, costs $1,300 and is bundled together under the Driver Assist package.
The $2,300 Enhanced Visibility package adds the 8-inch digital gauge cluster, a head-up display, rear pedestrian alert, automatic parking assist, a surround vision recorder, replaces the surround-view cameras with HD units, and adds a washer to the rear-view camera.
Strangely, it doesn't add the night vision system, which costs $2,000 and can only be had if a driver first opts for the Platinum, Enhanced Visibility, and Driver Assist packages.
Aside from the Floor Liner, Premium Carpet, and Interior Protection packages, which do exactly as they say, the deal of the century is the $750 Comfort and Air Quality package, which adds outboard rear heated seats, ventilated front seats (heated front seats are standard), and an onboard air ionizer.
The XT6 is a perfect car for Cadillac because it accomplishes two very important tasks: it expands the automaker's SUV lineup and also fills the gap between the body-on-frame Escalade and the smaller two-row XT5. It effectively gives buyers who want maximum utility without sacrificing the benefits of a crossover platform (the Escalade essentially rides on a truck frame) a new choice.
The problem with the XT6, however, is that it doesn't really offer buyers anything that can't be found elsewhere in the segment for less money. Those who want luxury features and don't care about the badge are better off buying a well-spec'd Hyundai Palisade and saving some money. Those who want a thoroughly fleshed-out luxury SUV are better off with a German or Japanese luxury marquee.
But to some customers, the XT6's Escala-derived styling and optional toys, like the night vision camera, will be enough to get them into a Cadillac dealership. To them, we only have one thing to say. Steer clear of the Premium Luxury trim and go with the XT6 Sport.